Rincon building inspector Cathy Hughes put up a mighty fight as she tried to hold on to her job at her public hearing Monday evening.
The longtime inspector was placed on paid administrative leave March 27 by interim City Manager David Schofield in order to give her time to file an appeal. Her termination date was set for April 10, but city council members voted to re-instate her.
Schofield received a letter from city planner LaMeisha Hunter citing Hughes for failing to make contractors re-submit plans if the setbacks are incorrect.
Once he got the letter, Schofield reviewed Hughes’ file and from the reprimands over the past year that he saw, made the decision to fire her.
“I don’t really know Ms. Hughes that well,” Schofield said. “Only thing I was looking at is her personnel file.”
Her personnel records include infractions beginning in May 2006 when she neglected to call in sick. A written reprimand for failing to advertise the closing of Atlantic Street followed in October.
However, the two biggest errors on Hughes’ part were issuing a certificate of occupancy (CO) after she had been repeatedly told not to do so and failing to inform a contractor that the setbacks for a house on 9th Street were incorrect.
The Department of Natural Resources instructed the city on Sept. 8 to stop issuing COs because the city exceeding its water permit. Nonetheless, Hughes issued a CO on Oct. 13. She was written up for the action on Oct. 24.
“She did that in direct violation of an order by the city manager (Mike Barton),” Schofield said.
He added that by doing so she put the city at risk of losing its water permit.
On March 27 Schofield gave Hughes a written reprimand for failing to follow building guidelines.
She issued a building permit for the house at 522 West 9th Street despite the fact that it failed to meet the setback requirements.
Afterwards she conducted a total of 16 inspections on the house and according to Schofield never once told the contractors during these inspections that the setbacks were incorrect. The house needed to be 35 feet from 9th Street instead of 25.8 feet and 28.1 feet as the plans showed.
Contractors working on the house at 522 West 9th Street came before the city council on March 26 seeking a variance on the setbacks. Hughes said at her public hearing that she instructed the contractor to seek a variance.
Her husband Steve Hughes noted in her defense that the city council would not had known about the setback issue if Hughes hadn’t instructed the contractor to approach them for a variance.
By the time the matter came before the council, the house was largely constructed. Council members could have either granted the variance request or made the contractor tear the house down. Doing the latter would have caused the homeowner or contractor or both to lose a considerable amount of money, according to Schofield.
“They were put in a position where they didn’t have much recourse,” noted Schofield about the councilmen.
Hughes met with the council to appeal her termination on April 9 in a closed meeting. Her public hearing on April 16 was requested by city attorney Raymond Dickey to allow her due process of law and to follow open meeting laws. He said that the old employee handbook did not offer any public hearings for terminated employees.
Hughes arrived at the public hearing with her husband. She said little in her defense, having already spoken to the council on April 9. Councilmen Paul Wendelken and Reese Browher asked her a few questions about the charges against her.
Steve Hughes and several others addressed the council to voice their support for Hughes and their opposition to her termination.
“I don’t understand what’s going on here,” shot former Rincon mayor and city councilman George Saraf and one of a handful of supporters present.
At council’s request, Schofield read the list of charges against Hughes to the crowd for those who didn’t know why she had been terminated.
“I know that she was a good employee all the years I was on the council,” noted former councilman Leon Zipperer.
Saraf added, “I’m in favor of keeping her.”
However, the most passionate pleas for Hughes to be given a second chance came from her husband and realtor Carol Hogue.
Steve Hughes repeatedly addressed the council, stressing how hard Hughes has worked for the city.
“I know she’s given half of our marriage to this city,” he said, noting that at one time she was doing all three jobs in the building and zoning department and works many hours of overtime with no pay.
Steve Hughes warned the council that it would take them two years to hire and train a new inspector.
“I just don’t believe you’re acting in your best interests,” he said.
Hogue pleaded with the council to take the high road and give Hughes one more chance. She asked the group to take in consideration if her actions were willful or accidental.
Steve Hughes said that firing his wife was not just a professional blow, but also a personal one.
“Basically you have put us on the street,” he said. “I hope all of you sleep better at night.”
Hughes’ 13 years with the city as building and zoning inspector (now building inspector) has been a choppy one.
She has resigned twice, first in 1999 and later in 2001. However, her past evaluations (three in all) from two different city managers for three different years reveal a good employee.
All three noted that she was well versed on unusual and complex aspects of her job and that her work was above average. In addition, they all noted that she does more than is required of her and is reliable.
Dickey cited the city’s lack of written corrective action guidelines as a failing of the city and part of the issue with Hughes. Browher asked her if she had ever received a corrective action form for the cited charges against her. Hughes replied she never did.
As part of her reinstatement, Hughes was placed on probation for six months. In addition, she will receive corrective action guidelines regarding her job performance and a more clearly delineated job description. The council added a 10-day suspension without pay. Hughes will return to work on April 25.
Her immediate supervisor, Hunter, is working on the guidelines. If she is reprimanded in the next six months the situation will be handled according to these guidelines.
Asked if he thinks the work environment will be tense with Hughes’ return, Schofield replied, “I don’t think so.”
Despite the council’s decision, he still stands by his decision to terminate her.